Saturday, July 23, 2005

Self Replicators

John von Neumann first formalized the idea of a self-replicating machine in the 1940’s. The idea is still radical because the very definition of life includes the ability to reproduce. People fear the idea of a “sorcerer’s apprentice” scenario of a self-replicating machine running madly out of control. With nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing, this open-loop condition leads to ‘gray goo’ oozing over the landscape and absorbing everything in sight.

A “clanking replicator,” which uses a cooperating team of conventional manufacturing machines is a more realistic image. The factory would be able to mine and refine the raw materials then form, shape and assemble the parts. Researchers at the University of Bath are investigating ways to make a universal replicator that will make itself from supplied materials. Project RepRap (for REPlicating RAPid-prototyper) uses rapid prototype and small machine technology to make a copy of itself and other things. One of the pioneers of the project, Adrian Bowyer, believes that an open-source manufacturing machine could change the world. The universal constructor, he says, would have three world-changing properties.
First, the self-replicating machines would become exponentially more available and therefore exponentially less expensive. The ultimate cost of the machines would only be the cost of the raw materials and a small amount of final assembly labor. I think he over-estimates the contribution to cost of the manufacturing. In today’s modern mass-production, the processing of the item is a very small percentage of the cost. Most of the cost of an item, after the material cost, is in the production overhead cost. Overhead includes the cost to design and organize the production process. Bowyer’s proposal has an open-source design so that cost is less. But even with RepRap machines, as the volume of machines making new machines grew, the organizational costs would probably blossom to the same as any factory.
The second unique characteristic of the open-source self-replicating machines would be their continual incremental improvement – their evolution. The wide distribution of the machines into different hands would lead people to tweak their own machine to improve it. The improvements would then transfer around the community and incorporate into new machines. This is probably a fair hypothesis; it is also true of most manufactured products today. It would only be truly effective evolution if the new machines replaced the old ones.
The third factor that Bowyer predicts is that manufacturing will become so cheap that it will completely change the nature of the economy. Since anyone can make anything they want then industrial manufacturing will be completely obsolete. If someone needs a new item they can just download the design from the internet and make it themselves. In the limit, I agree that this is a possibility. However, there are many more barriers to the end of factories then the ability to make one’s own items. Just as the Xerox machine did not cause the end of the publisher, the self-replicator will not cause the end of the mass manufacturer. Some things will always be cheaper to make in mass. People will try to improve the design of objects to be able to sell theirs at a premium price. People will very quickly learn how to keep their algorithm or unique process details proprietary so that they can make a profit. So while the new method of manufacturing will change many things, I do not believe that it will change peoples’ motivations for wanting to own special things.
Artifacturing falls somewhere between nano-molecular manufacturing and factory-sized clanking replicators. The goal of artifacturing is not for the machines to take over the world – economically or otherwise – but to allow people to expand their idea of what is possible and to create artifacts of the fruits of their limitless digital pallets and imagination.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tangible User Interface

Research has been continuing for ten years or more into Tangible User Interfaces. This is an exploration of better, ways to interface the physical world with the internal workings of computers.
The narrow and intellectually dense interface channels limit the productivity of computers.
There was a huge leap in simplicity from text, DOS, based computers to the Graphical User Interface, GUI. The introduction of the relatively simple Apple interface is credited with starting the personal computer revolution. The graphical icons and desktop metaphor simplify access to information but it is still limited. Our access to the computing world is through the small window of the computer screen.

The Tangible Bits group at MIT Media labs studies alternate links to the computer. They are looking for ultimately, the complete lack of any interface – a seamless cooperation between man and machine.

Extending the desktop metaphor from the screen to a real desktop is one idea. Just as the icons on the screen represent files somewhere in the computer, you could have fetishes or charms that represent bits off on a computer somewhere.

The charm would work similar to an icon on your virtual desktop. You could pick it up, shake it, put it in a box, shine a light on it or place it somewhere to tell the computer what to do. Some examples given by Dr. Hiroshi Ishii at MIT are to have a hand-sized truck token to represent your truck business. You put the charm over a speaker to get a sound of rain proportional to truck sales. Loud rain would be high sales; soft rain would be low sales.
Another example is a weather bottle. You remove the top from the bottle to hear a weather report, cap it again to silence it.

What is the advantage of this over the current visual interface? There may not be an advantage in every example. The idea though, is to simplify the interface. There are many people who find the windows interface silly and cumbersome.

What does this have to do with artifacturing?
Artifacturing gives the ability to print the charms, bottles, interlocking blocks, idols, or whatever physical artifact needed to be able to manipulate the information in physical space rather than in the ethereal computer world. It simplifies the step of creating the relics so we can focus on ways to take advantage of the interface.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Art that is made to be used

Okay, this may be a bit abstract, but it is an important part of artifacturing.
Personal creation of everyday objects used for everyday tasks or for everyday enlightenment and appreciation was obsoleted by the Industrial Revolution. The factory replaced the need for personal works of tools, dishes, furniture...
It replaced the need to produce the artifacts, but did it replace the human need for expression through these works?
Artifacturing can retrieve the personal creation of everyday things.

Here is an example of a culture which preserved their traditional craft of pottery...

For one tribe, the Tewas, there is no word for art. "My mother always told me pots are made to be used," says potter Dora Tse-Pe of San Ildefonso Pueblo. "They are sad if you don't use them."

Exploring pueblo pottery is a gateway into the land, people, and native cultures of New Mexico. Born from an intrinsic need for storage vessels, these ceramics are today widely admired and collected for their beauty.

Despite the fact that many pieces fetch as much as $20,000, the idea that pottery is, above all else, inherently functional is still very much a part of American Indian culture

Art that was made to be used |

IsraCast: Technology in Israel

A new low cost system that illustrates immediately a 3D model of a room has been developed by an Israeli company, EZ2CAD. The system facilitates the performing of highly accurate computerized measurements inside buildings. It allows a single operator to measure a room and create a CAD (Computer-aided design) model in real time which can then be used to plan the further development of the interior structure.

The new system is composed of two units, a base station and a lightweight mobile unit called Rover. The Base station is essentially a 50cm high metallic pyramid with nine tiny RF and ultra sound transmitters / receivers built into it. The Rover is a portable unit shaped like a telescopic rod 1meter in length, which can extend up to 3m to help measure high ceilings, and other hard to reach places.

create a 3D model of the measured area with an accuracy of about 2cm within less than a second.

IsraCast: Technology in Israel

Saturday, July 09, 2005

3-D Face Scanner

Here is another simple scanner made from a laserpointer, turntable and video camera.

Results are not so good but the process is pretty simple.

3-D Scanner